Twitter hashtags: spam magnets

One of the most useful engagement tools for a conference is a Twitter hashtag. This little device, where a word is connected to the hash symbol (#) – known as a pound sign in the US – is a useful tool for event organizers as it enables anyone to connect to your event and see all the online commentary that mentions the hashtag.

Anyone, whether at an event or not, can also be part of the overall conversation by including the hashtag in their own tweets. If a hashtagged topic gets popular, it can become a Twitter trending topic, attracting more attention. Hashtags form the basis for tweet chats. And they’re search engine friendly as hashtagged words will appear in search results in Twitter, Google, etc. Consider, too, that the participants in many events are, arguably, influential people in their particular fields, so attracting the attention and interest of many others.

All of that is probably part of why hashtags have captured the active attention of spammers and other shady characters. That certainly was the case at the FT Digital Media Conference 2012 that took place in London on March 7-8 and which I went to (an excellent event, btw; a post about it to come).

It became clear quite quickly on the first day of the conference that the hashtag #ftmedia12 was being used by people who had nothing to do with the event nor were their tweets remotely connected with the subject of the conference. At one point in the morning of that first day, I estimate that at least ten percent of all tweets I saw using the hashtag were spam.

Procter & Gamble had the spam magnet effect, too, on their hashtag at a marketing event organized by Federated Media Publishing in the US last week, Advertising Age reports:

[…] By two hours into the event, the #SignalPG hashtag had become a trending topic on Twitter. That lured enough spammers that Federated took down the live Twitter search feed until Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, a speaker at the event, helped get the spam canned.

How do you know such tweets are spam? Well, here’s an example from the FT conference posted late yesterday (and note other topical hijacked hashtags):

The image above links to the original tweet although I would expect the account to have been closed by Twitter by now. And, by the way, this is one of the tamest spam tweets: many using the FT event hashtag were pornographic, either in use of words or in the images used for avatars, or both.

And that is another part of the issue – such Twitter accounts pop up all the time, get blocked by users or closed by Twitter, yet others reappear as quickly. It really is like a constant game of Whack-a-Mole.

What to do about it? How do you eradicate this pestilence on the Twitter landscape? Can you even control it? All questions that occupied a number of people’s time and thoughts during coffee breaks at the FT conference, with ideas ranging from accept the landscape as is (surely not!) to requiring anyone using a hashtag to have a certain minimum number of followers on the premise that most spammers seem to have none or only a handful of them, while they follow hundreds (but how would you make that happen?)

These are thorny issues and, indeed, are part of the current engagement landscape. Until an automated process emerges that reduces the problem (I don’t think it will ever go away entirely – look at email spam), or a good balance is struck between enabling people to connect and engage with hashtags while keeping the spammers at bay, you need to be vigilant as an event organizer and as a conversation participant:

  1. Block spam accounts as soon as you see them. Your account on the Twitter website has a method to let you do that; many third-party apps also let you block spammers and report them to Twitter.
  2. Organizers, make sure you constantly monitor the Twitter stream. If your hashtag becomes a trending topic, pay especially close attention.
  3. If you plan to publish a transcript of hashtag conversations, spend the time reviewing and editing before you publish.

Just three ideas. Any more?

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Vladimir

    I am also faced with this problem but from the other side. Huge amount of spam about google+ and other tools that promoting now make it worse to find interesting news about social media.
    Now I use “-” in search queries. But you know it isn’t convenient.

    After I’ve read Article I got couple ideas:
    1. We can open hash-tag option only after 5 days after account creating. That means user can use “#” but it will not go to index (first five days)
    2. We can make special filter for twitts only with one hash tag.

    In general I think that this problem is very old and came from DNA retroviruses. Now only few percent of DNA code is useful but it’s okey because, major part of DNA blocked for reading. Look familiar:)

  2. Peter Sigrist

    Thanks for raising the issue Neville. Some good ideas there, and from Vladimir too. A slightly more radical suggestion: what about giving organisations or brands the opportunity to own “hashtag real-estate” on a temporary basis, for example during an event. They could then manage the feed of hashtag content for the duration of the event.

    Would this break Twitter? Or could it handle such a managed approach?

    • Neville Hobson

      That’s not a bad idea, Peter, and maybe something like you suggest would be worth trying if there’s no other way. But I worry about control and the probabilities for abuse, as Vladimir and Noel note in their comments.

      I guess living with spam and blocking/reporting spammers when you see them is part of the landscape for the time being.

  3. Vladimir

    In my opinion hashtag ownership is a not very god idea. Because it will be entry difficult threshold for event participants. Arter that twitter lose advantage: easy to be participant of every discussion.

  4. Noel Proulx

    Don’t like the idea of anyone being able to ‘own’ a hash tag, I could see that being abused in a way to make material relevant to something unpopular (ie #cokemakesyoufat) disappear. The problem I am seeing more and more is a large portion of the tweet being taken up by hashtags as the tweeter includes 7 or 8 to try to get seen.

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